Earlier this week, a man was killed inside a car wash in Escondido, California, when he exited his vehicle during the washing process and was trapped by the machinery. Can the family hold the car wash responsible for what happened?
California is a pure comparative fault state. Comparative negligence is a way of allocating damages when both parties can be said to contribute to the accident. For example, if you ride a bike on the wrong side of the road and get hit by a car, the court (or the insurance company, in the beginning) will likely assign part of the blame for what happened to you. It is not meant to blame the victim, rather, the purpose is to encourage everyone involved to exercise the utmost degree of caution. If you think about it, comparative negligence protects everyone by discouraging provocation (as in dog bite cases) and irresponsible behavior (jaywalking, public intoxication, etc.). Imagine if you're driving on a dark road, and suddenly a pedestrian steps out right into your lane, too late for you to avoid. These situations are unfortunately more common than we would like to believe, and preventing this kind of behavior is just as important as placing adequate lighting on the street and ensuring proper crosswalk placement.
Pure comparative fault is a much gentler public policy compared to modified comparative fault doctrine in effect in some other states, where the victim is barred from receiving any compensation at all if they are 50% or more at fault. In California, the precise allocation of fault may be flexible, and it is ultimately up to the jury to decide exactly how much responsibility each party bears. The case referenced above, for example, would be governed by the Judicial Council Civil Jury Instructions ("CACI") No. 407: Comparative Fault of Decedent. To obtain the benefit of this reduction, the Defendant will have to prove that:
1. The Decedent was negligent; and
2. The Decedent's negligence was a substantial factor in causing his death.